December 2009


Vermeer's Masterpiece: The Milkmaid
Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 10, 2009 - November 29, 2009

Vermeer's Milkmaid: More Than Meets the Eye?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

Thanks to Henry Hudson's historic voyage to these parts four hundred years ago, and the generosity of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (not to mention that of the various donors who funded this recent exhibition), visitors to New York's Metropolitan Museum had a rare opportunity to see one of the most admired works by one of Western art's greatest painters. Only once before was it permitted to cross the Atlantic--seventy years ago, for the 1939 World's Fair.

If you think you know this deceptively simple genre painting well from its ubiquitous reproductions, you would have been surprised. First, despite the seeming monumentality of the sturdy kitchen maid it depicts, The Milkmaid [more ] is quite small, measuring only about 16 by 18 inches, in sharp contrast with the 8 by 10 foot blowup at the entrance to the exhibition. Second, no reproduction is likely to do full justice to the brilliance of its effect in person. Painted when Vermeer was probably not much more than twenty-four years old, it shows him in full command of a master painter's toolbox: tightly constructed yet seemingly natural composition, skillful delineation of both figure and still life elements, rich but subtle palette, and marvelous lighting effects--all are bound together into a vivid unity. Remarkably, from the few documents that remain regarding Vermeer's short life (he died at forty-three), he appears to have been entirely self-taught, learning all he knew from direct observation of nature and close study of the work of fellow painters. Close study of his own work reveals the subtle touches by which he achieved his pictorial magic--from a fine white line along the right edge of the maid's figure (enhancing its definition against the brightly lit wall) to the pointillistic brushwork that creates a scintillating play of light on the rough crusts of bread arrayed on the table.

The Met's exhibition effectively situated The Milkmaid within Vermeer's total oeuvre, as well as within a broader cultural context. Starting with chronologically grouped reproductions of all his paintings, (1) it included the five works that are owned by the museum: Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (c. 1662), A Maid Asleep (c. 1656-57), Study of a Young Woman (c. 1665-67), Woman with a Lute (c. 1662-63), and Allegory of the Catholic Faith (c. 1670). (2) In addition, important works by contemporary Dutch masters offered illuminating points of comparison, as did a select group of drawings and engravings dealing with the same theme as The Milkmaid.

What was both striking and significant is the way in which Vermeer transformed existing prototypes, stylistically as well as iconographically. His composition closely resembles that in the lefthand portion of Hendrick Sorgh's A Kitchen (displayed in an adjoining room in the exhibition), ten or fifteen years earlier, for example. But The Milkmaid's less cluttered scene, bathed in warm light, focuses on the solitary figure of the young maid, rendering her almost sculptural in her solidity. As the exhibition's curator, Walter Liedtke, pointed out, images of milkmaids and kitchen wenches had had a long tradition in Dutch and Flemish art for their erotic associations, often represented with vulgar explicitness in earlier works. Vermeer's treatment of the theme is unprecedented in its understatement and psychological subtlety, however. Apart from what may be one prominent allusion to female anatomy, he included only a foot warmer--which frequently betokened sexual arousal in the art of his day--and an inconspicuous image of Cupid, as well as one of a male traveler with a walking stick, on the Delft wall tiles next to the warmer, further alluding to amorous thoughts. More important, he endowed the sturdy figure of his kitchen maid with a dignity and psychological complexity totally new to the theme. Eyes downcast, she seems intent on her task, yet her expression suggests something more, an interior life apart from her domestic labors. Perhaps, as Liedtke suggests, she is also musing on love. Unlike earlier prototypes, she seems more innocent than salacious, however--a figure to be respected rather than trifled with.

Although some critics (including Louis Torres) reasonably argue that Liedtke has gone a bit too far in reading sexual implications into the work, I nevertheless find that his linking of The Milkmaid to an established iconographic tradition actually serves to highlight Vermeer's exceptional qualities as an artist, by demonstrating his extraordinary transformation of a familiar subject and theme in the Dutch culture of his day.

An interesting fact noted by Liedtke (the author of a monograph on the painter's work, Vermeer: The Complete Paintings) is that Vermeer used costly lapis lazuli pigment for the rich blue of the table drapery and the maid's skirt, which strongly suggests that The Milkmaid was painted on commission for his wealthy and sophisticated primary patron, Pieter van Ruijven. By his death, Van Ruijven is reported to have owned twenty-one of the thirty-six now-extant works by the artist. Although Vermeer died in poverty, and he was relatively little known until the revival of interest in his work in the second half of the nineteenth century, his value as an artist--who innovated by subtle refinement rather than by drastic overhaul of an existing tradition--was clearly recognized in his own time. Liedtke's wall texts, labels, and catalogue for the exhibition shed much light on this and other matters regarding Vermeer's life and work.

1. To get a sense of Vermeer's total oeuvre in a similar chronological arrangement, representing all the works to scale, see "The Complete Ouevre of Vermeer in Scale" in The Essential Vermeer.

2. The nearby Frick Collection at Fifth Avenue and 70th Street owns three splendid Vermeers: Girl Interrupted at Her Music [more ] [c. 1658-59], Officer and Laughing Girl [more] [c. 1657], and Mistress and Maid [more] [the maid] [1666-67].